We paddle every spring and fall. Some guys have obligations and cannot enjoy camping and whitewater canoeing. A week-long trip excludes most guys. But the usual two-night, three-day trip is the norm and possible for many of our group of 14. After completing a tame yet fun overnight trip in October 2016, I yearned for an ambitious, multi-day adventure. I scoured maps, blogs, and rivers looking for a new river to run. After much time, I found a river north of a 200,000+ acre state park. The area was destined to be remote, provide some whitewater, great cold water fishing, and sure adventure with over 30 miles of paddling.
A long and cold Maine winter raised hell with our firm trip date in early May. The weekend was not possible when winter lingered followed by heavy rains plagued northern Maine in April. The group dropped to plan B, the old reliable, the upper Machias. Many of us have paddled this one at least five times, if not more. As the group narrowed for the open weekend, we firmed our plans.
I left home early on Friday morning. I intended to hit the cabin for some light repairs before heading out with friends. I parked my car along the dirt road, gathered my gear, and hiked. Normally, my car would take me further along this road, but heavy spring rains required me to walk more than normal, rather than destroy the soft road addled by spring rains. I traveled quietly. Thoughts of whitewater canoeing adventures preoccupied my mind.
Suddenly, a large black bear entered my view. I stopped as I surveyed this dark creature, walking on all fours and yet standing 3 feet tall, roughly the size of an office desk. The creature sauntered a bit heavily, a large head and body interlocking and turning together with great force. The bear recognized me, right as I recognized he or she. I stopped, stumbled, and retreated a bit. The bear paused and then drifted into the woods like a shadow passing with the sun. I regained some bravery and held my ground. I contemplated advancing towards my goal of working at the cabin. Many minutes passed as I imagined the bear lingering near my passage. I retreated and returned to my car, having realized seemingly enough resistance for early in the day. What challenging river rapids were to come on this trip?
Ten or fifteen minutes later, I met my friends at a nearby diner. They arrived in a large 4-door, 4-wheel drive truck. I drove my large silver sedan with a trailer hauling a canoe. A good friend, Uncle Don, joined me as a passenger, and we traveled to the take out. I dropped my car and the five of us eventually found the launch site. We dropped gear and loaded boats. Soon we were starting the canoe trip.
Ten years ago was the last time we paddled the river, according to our photo records. The high water levels and distant memories made the rapids an adventure. I remember thinking the trip had just one set of tough rapids, but we encountered three good drops on our first day. My partner and I lined our boats over a twisting drop and a beaver dam on the first day. We ran a majority of the subsequent rapids. The other canoe and kayak somewhat easily passed these sections.
Our first night, we camped along an east-west sand beach. The clouds of black flies from earlier in the day no longer bothered us here. Our cook prepared a five-course meal with personalized menus. We enjoyed New Hampshire mushrooms, lobster chowder, mashed potatoes, corn bread, and garden asparagus. Our colorful tents lined the sandy shore.
The next morning, we awoke and paddled across the windy lake. We found the outlet, navigated small but interesting rapids connecting us to the next lake. We lashed our canoes together and formed a sail to carry us down the next waterway. I carried the mast like a guitar, one arm around the base and the other around the fretboard. We traveled about 5mph down the lake for almost 2 hours. We stopped at a large rock for lunch, remembered pauses here on previous trips, and muscled down the lake via the wind to our next beach campsite. Chicken and coconut rice dinner, along with nice company and a roaring fire, made for an enjoyable evening.
The next morning, we saddled our gear into the canoes. The lake narrowed into a small rapid, then deadwater, more rapids, and further deadwater. My canoe partner and I ran these sections well. Approaching a new set of rapids, I questioned whether this was the big rapid or not. Do we want to stop and scout? My buddy said no. We ran the rapid. We hit the first large drop and took on some water. Serious waves fiercely guarded the passage downstream. I hastily pivoted our boat around a white birch tree standing is a berzerk fashion upright in the water. We dropped down this next section, again taking on more water. The canoe floated a bit recklessly with too much water in the bottom. A large boulder approached us with much speed. Lacking control, we smashed against the boulder. The canoe bounced off the rock. I clamored for some unimportant gear, and the boat wavered weakly. My mistake. The canoe tipped precariously and took on tremendous amounts of water. We were done. The boat, borrowed from a colleague, spun around 180 degrees and caught volumes of water. We fought the canoe to shore, emptied the water, and eventually carried the canoe and gear to safer passage. The other canoe team in our group dumped in the same place, even after scouting the rapid for some time. The kayaker in our team paddled the section, but shook considerably after running the whitewater. No one remembered the falls ever being this big, but the heavy spring rains somewhat explained our situation.
After gathering our gear and boats, including one of our car keys in a bag washed on shore, we paddled through a few more rapids and calm lakes, and eventually found the reassuring site of my car and the takeout.
During this trip, we endured higher-than-expected rapids, ravenous blackflies and mosquitoes, plus a great time among friends. Sore muscles and sunburns were part of the deal. This same group has paddled spring and fall trips off and on for the past 20 years. A few bug bites and overturned boats were completely acceptable. After a handshakes and hugs, exchanged by men who haven’t showered for days, we agreed to paddle again this fall.